Aceh: The Political Picture

David DiGiovanna, a U.S. foreign service officer who spent the past four years in the U.S. Embassy Jakarta, the last two as the Embassy’s Aceh watcher, said that conditions were ripe for a resumption of dialogue in strife-torn Aceh province, but he cautioned that new talks should include a broad cross-section of civil society and not focus merely on the two armed parties, TNI and the GAM – the Indonesian military and the secessionist rebels.  “Dialogue needs to restart, but not just between the government and GAM,” he said.  “The two armed players don’t have much interest in a peaceful settlement.”  Jakarta should look for a way to broaden the discussion to more segments of Acehnese society,” he said, “and find a broad and inclusive” structure for new talks.

His remarks at USINDO, on January 18, fortuitously coincided with an announcement by Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda that talks with the GAM would resume at the end of the month.  Initial talks have taken place in Helsinki, but thus far there is no indication of progress.  Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Alwi Shihab, speaking from Aceh at the time of the government’s announcement, said the government will talk to civilian groups.

DiGiovanna said that civil society is strong in Aceh, and that the tsunami damage was focused on the west coast, less than ten percent of the land area.  The north-northeast coast, where sixty percent of the 4.3 million population are located, was relatively undamaged, he said.  “Outsiders need not come in to run Aceh.  The top leadership of government is intact and must play a role in reconstruction.”

In describing how peace talks might be structured, DiGiovanna said that while the basic decision and direction must be at the presidential level, consulting with civil society leaders in Aceh would be productive.  “There are very impressive NGO leaders in Aceh,” he said.  “Get them together and let them propose” how to proceed.  “The Acehnese will speak up,” he said.  He suggested the talks should be decentralized, held simultaneously in different places at different times, and focus on a variety of issues such as security, police reform, economic development, reconciliation, etc.  He further suggested that Indonesian reformers who are Acehnese, or even retired military officers who are Acehnese, might be good interlocuters.

DiGiovanna named some recent developments that give reason to hope.

  • The possibility of a direct election for governor in 2005.
  • The popularity of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is seen as open to a peaceful resolution of conflict in Aceh and who received 75-80 percent of the Acehnese vote in the recent presidential election
  • The arrest of Governor Puteh and his temporary removal from the governorship of Aceh.  Puteh was widely discredited among the Acehnese and seen by many as an obstacle to meaningful provincial self-government.
  • The success of the 2004 parliamentary elections in Aceh.  In Aceh, a 13-member delegation was elected to the House of Representatives (DPR) that includes “many good new names,” DiGiovanna said.  At present these are among very few who can credibly claim to be democratically elected representatives of the Acehnese people.  “Jakarta has not fully appreciated their good value,” he said.

DiGiovanna suggested that many “young activists” in the province may be looking for an alternative to war or separation, and would be amenable to a solution along the lines of the Special Autonomy Law for Aceh passed by the Indonesian parliament in 2001.  The law has never been implemented.  DiGiovanna suggested that the GAM commanders on the ground have, in the past, shown greater flexibility than the aging GAM leaders in Sweden, but they are reluctant to discuss policy issues with Jakarta.  However, it would be a mistake for Jakarta to try and “outwait” Stockholm, DiGiovanna said, because the next generation of expatriate GAM leaders are even more hard-line than the current top leaders in Stockholm.  “Only a comprehensive and inclusive political process based on the Special Autonomy Law of 2001 has a chance of success in resolving the long standing conflict,” he said.

The destruction wrought by the tsunami has brought many changes, DiGiovanna said.  Above all, Aceh is open again to foreign NGOs, diplomats and journalists.  The acquiescence of the TNI indicates that they realized they could not cope with relief efforts alone.  International relief workers have said they’ve had good cooperation with TNI.  Acehnese are pleased at the front-page attention, and hope that international scrutiny will be helpful to their aspirations.  “Keeping Aceh open should be the top priority of all donors,” he said.  The destruction of infrastructure, local government and civic personnel is acute on the west coast, and will affect the political and economic dynamic in ways too early to tell, he suggested.

At the same time, some things have not changed.  There is no change in the military situation on the ground.  The Indonesian military – TNI – is still in place and the GAM rebels are still in the hills.  The TNI is still the dominant political power, with 40,000 troops on the ground.  The government has announced it will raise the troop level to 50,000.  TNI still has the ability to fight against the GAM and the GAM is wounded but not defeated.

Based on the history of the government’s relations with the GAM, the basic positions of the two parties offer little hope for change, DiGiovanna said.  Jakarta is still unwilling to offer anything that would interest GAM, he said, and GAM remains pledged to achieve independence.  In addition, “Jakarta still does not understand the need for accountability for TNI actions during the DOM period,” he said.  DOM, or Daerah Operasi Militer, refers to the period of the 1990s when Aceh was declared an “area of military operations,” and military suppression was severe.  “Full legal accountability is a non-starter with TNI,” DiGiovanna said, but an alternative concept of ‘reconciliation’, through an Islamic process know as ‘islah’ has not been adequately explored.

The political process since the fall of Suharto in 1998 has consisted of a slow effort to search for a new dynamic in dealing with Aceh.  From 2000 to 2003 there were extensive efforts at negotiations, culminating in a “Cessation of Hostilities Agreement” signed in 2002.  This agreement included a government offer for an “all-inclusive” dialogue with Acehnese society, within the context of special autonomy.  But as the security situation in the province deteriorated in the first half of 2003, this never materialized.  By May of 2003 all negotiations broke down, and the government announced a state of military emergency and a new military campaign.  This renewed military campaign was not a repeat of the “systematic state terror seen in the 1990s,” DiGiovanna said.  “We did not see that the second time.”  By the end of 2004, Aceh’s “political revolt” that began in 1998 had run its course and TNI had succeeded in reestablishing security in most of the province.  Ironically, this success in re-establishing a degree of security, coupled with the return of international attention to Aceh in the wake of the tsunami, has created conditions that should be amenable to a peaceful solution of the decades-long conflict.

One most worrisome element, according to DiGiovanna, is the introduction of militant Islamist groups like the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) into Aceh.  It’s a matter of concern, he said, not because they have come to target foreigners but because they have been invited by “domestic political interests.”  These groups have links to elements of the security forces.  GAM is not interested in new militant Islamist groups the province.  It previously rejected attempts by Laskar Jihad to establish an office in Aceh.  But if new outside Islamist groups are able to establish themselves in Aceh, it could lead to “horizontal conflicts” with local Acehnese NGOs, according to DiGiovanna.